Since Facebook acquired the app in 2012, Instagram has snowballed to an estimated 1 billion monthly users. Instagram purportedly generates around $20 billion a year in advertising revenue. But this rapid expansion has coincided with a gradual loss of autonomy. Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier, author of No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, says that Instagram has gradually become less of a “company within a company” and more of a “product division” of Facebook.
This sentiment jibes with what a handful of former Instagram employees revealed to Wired in a recent article. (For privacy reasons, the names of these employees have been changed in this post.)
Jon, who recently left Instagram after two years at the company, details an envy-fueled relationship between Facebook and Instagram. “Initially, Facebook’s fear was that Instagram was becoming more of a force than Facebook. So. there was a real jealousy because Instagram was seen as cool and Facebook was not,” he says.
Jon asserts that Facebook’s paranoia gave rise to a “self-imposed dominance” over the other apps that it owns. “Now, if you go on Instagram or WhatsApp, it says ‘WhatsApp by Facebook’ or ‘Instagram by Facebook.’ So rather than embracing the fact that they had this new property [Instagram] that still had some cachet at the time, they just decided to ‘Facebook-ify’ it,” he says. “They thought: ‘the problem isn’t that people don’t like Facebook, it’s that they don’t know that Facebook owns Instagram!’ – which was obviously completely delusional.”
This unavoidable proximity hasn’t always been embraced by Instagram, especially as Facebook began to become more associated with older users, disinformation, and online radicalization. “If you look at the differences between the ways in which Instagram and Facebook are perceived, one of the great fears that Instagram had was its connection to Facebook,” says Kevin, another former employee who left Instagram earlier this year.
These concerns might not be unfounded. As Facebook has exerted more control over Instagram, there appears to be a growing disconnect between what its users want and what the app is delivering. This became apparent on July 30th, when Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, tweeted a video notifying users about some of the app’s current priorities. “At Instagram, we’re always trying to build new features that help you get the most out of your experience,” Mosseri said. “Right now, we’re focused on four key areas: creators, video, shopping, and messaging.”
At first glance, there’s nothing atypical about this tweet. Mosseri, who took over at Instagram in 2018 after 13 years at Facebook, frequently posts videos such as this. Sporting a variety of patterned shirts, Mosseri informs his followers about what Instagram is doing and how things like the algorithm really work. But this particular post went viral, and was quickly “ratioed” – with its quote-tweets and replies far exceeding the number of likes and retweets.
“You guys CONSISTENTLY undermine what made your app great in the first place,” Amber tweeted in response.
“All we ever wanted was a chronological feed to keep up with friends,” replied Jax.
“You do realize that what made IG great originally was that it was just an image platform, right?” asked another user.
One term that crops up over and over again when scrolling through the responses to Mosseri’s tweet is “clueless.” Another common theme is the idea that incessant updates are “killing Instagram from the inside” and that the app is having an identity crisis.
For its part, Instagram has stressed that the app has a “different focus” than Facebook and that Mosseri and employees make all major decisions about the app. The company also states that it tries to keep its product simple.
There wasn’t always such hostility between Instagram and its users. In 2010, Instagram’s mobile-first approach helped set the app apart from its social media competitors. The first app to genuinely fit with our lifestyles, “Instagram wasn’t something you were to supposed to update once you were back home on your computer,” Frier says. “It was something you’re supposed to bring around in the world with you and capture what you were seeing and experiencing.”
Other unique features drove the app’s popularity. “On your profile, there was no ‘reshare’ button, so everything that was on your profile was something you had created or posted yourself,” Frier adds. “In some ways, it was the truest reflection of how we saw ourselves, and we were able to use it as a way to present our lives as more beautiful and perfect than they actually were.”
Celebrities’ use of Instagram was another huge draw for the app. Fans had already been able to engage with celebrities on Twitter and Facebook, but Instagram’s now-iconic range of filters forged a shared aesthetic – and the sense of an added level of closeness – between celebrities and everyday users.
So, what changed? In 2012, Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire Instagram. It’s been recounted numerous times that competition with Twitter (which supposedly made an offer before Facebook) incentivized Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg to purchase the photo-sharing rival. It has also been argued that, although Instagram was minuscule by comparison, the app’s mobile growth and younger user base was troubling for Facebook – thus, buying the platform would allow Zuckerberg to manage its growth as well as any potential threat. (It’s believed that the same thought process motivated Facebook’s 2014 purchase of WhatsApp, the third most-downloaded app of the last decade).
After 2012, the “Facebook-ification” of Instagram began. When the app launched, its simple premise – sharing photos, one at a time, with your friends – made it stand out. Conversely, Facebook was the home of large photo dumps, pokes, live chats, and “complicated” relationships. Twitter was all about posting as much and as often as possible. Instagram introduced new features more gradually, such as adding videos to the grid and giving users the option to add more than one photo to each post.
One of Instagram’s most beloved features, Instagram Stories, surfaced in 2016. Unlike the grid, this new way of posting urged users to share smaller moments more frequently. This also signified the first time that Instagram had blatantly mimicked a feature from another social media platform – in this case, Snapchat – with the explicit goal of stunting its growth.
Instagram’s plan was successful: Snapchat’s growth slowed by 82% after Stories launched. While Snapchat is still a multibillion dollar company with over 290 million users worldwide, Stories is a prime example of how Facebook has used Instagram combatively. “Facebook probably purchased Instagram to manage its growth, at a time when we were becoming increasingly popular and Facebook was starting to go on the downward spiral,” says Jon. “But Facebook also uses Instagram to neutralize threats from platforms like Snapchat who are popular with younger users in particular.”
Instagram Stories was a success from the standpoint of both users and businesses. Lookalike versions also appeared on Facebook, Twitter, and even LinkedIn (though the latter two were quickly scrapped). But Stories also marked the moment where Instagram started going on the defense and playing catch-up. It was no longer the latest, greatest thing.
The next time Instagram clearly tried to emulate a feature from another app, it was nowhere near as successful. This happened in 2020, when Reels was introduced in response to the rapid rise of TikTok. Reels further crowded an already congested app, which was now jam-packed with new functions, including Stories, grid-sharing, IGTV, Instagram Live, shopping, and messaging. The update failed to curtail TikTok, which now has more Gen Z users than Instagram in the U.S. and over 1 billion monthly users worldwide.
So why wasn’t Reels as successful as Stories? Frier thinks that, regardless of the undeniable business motivations, Stories solved a problem for Instagram users at the time: many were feeling too much pressure in regard to what they were posting on the grid. “This was something that was causing some users a lot of anxiety and making them compare themselves to other people,” she says. “This was actually bad for growth, because the pressure to post meant that people were posting less, which means there were fewer posts for regular people, and the whole app was getting taken over by celebrity types. That’s not sustainable for a business.”
The launching of Stories was a win-win: it addressed a user problem and accelerated Instagram’s growth, while at the same time slowing Snapchat’s early surge in popularity. But Reels was nothing more than a business fix. “Nobody needed Reels, and there was no user problem that Reels was trying to solve,” Frier says. “Instead, Reels was purely about trying to solve a business problem for Facebook, Inc. – which was the rise of TikTok.”
TikTok didn’t become popular in a vacuum. And its ascent calls attention to another growing issue for Instagram: its aging users. As Facebook became associated with older users, Instagram was originally its way of connecting with younger people. But now that Facebook is regarded as an app “for Boomers,” Instagram is basically serving as a “Millennial Facebook.” These days, Millennials are getting older and are no longer the youngest, most coveted demographic.
With regards to this shift, there’s been a progression towards being more “youth-driven” at Instagram. Jon says there has been frustration behind the scenes, where there was a disconnect between expectations and reality. “As the Instagram audience began to age, you could see a frustration around what was trending and what people were interacting with,” he says. “They kept talking about having a ‘youth focus,’ but things like home décor and parenting became really popular on the platform. And these things aren’t cool or trendy to teenagers. So, even though they were growing in popularity and possibly [becoming] more lucrative, they just kind of ignored it and did everything they could to pretend that wasn’t happening.”
Instagram’s struggles go hand in hand with a reexamination of the role that social media platforms play in our lives. While the app might have steered clear of the negative political associations of Facebook and Twitter, – despite political influencers like Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, and Donald Trump, Jr. being huge on the platform – Instagram’s association with influencers and brands has certainly come under scrutiny. It’s virtually impossible to avoid a flurry of ads and paid partnerships while using the app.
Global news stories such as the Fyre Festival – a doomed event that influencers like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner promoted on Instagram – or the rise and fall of Australian Instagram star and “wellness guru” scammer Belle Gibson, have also tarnished the app’s public image.
On the topic of influencers, Jon says Instagram once again had its head in the sand. “‘Influencer’ was a dirty word, and we would never use it in any report or any internal-facing memo, because the connotations around influencers were not necessarily positive,” he states. But the issue with this approach was that influencers had become synonymous with Instagram whether they liked it or not. “We didn’t have control over the narrative,” he says. “We didn’t create the word – or even use the word – that ended up defining us.”
As Instagram became increasingly more refined and corporate, the window of opportunity for TikTok – a less pristine and deliberately tongue-in-cheek platform – widened considerably. TikTok has its own mega-influencers, like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae. TikTokers can also earn money through brand partnerships. And unlike Instagram, the platform’s Creator Fund pays users with over 10,000 followers (or 100,000 monthly views) for engagement as well. Still, at the moment Instagram seems to be more negatively identified with influencers cashing in from brands, amidst a time when many are concentrating on TikTok instead. It’s a catch-22.
Lucas worked on Reels up until the time that was rolled out worldwide. He recalls that it was apparent that there was going to be a problem. “The product was essentially the same as TikTok, so people were just transferring over their TikToks into Reels, with the watermark still visible,” he says. “And then most of the original content that was being produced on Reels was much lower in caliber than what TikTokers were producing on a daily basis.”
The decision to push ahead with Reels, despite early indications, is seemingly typical of the way Instagram is run. “It’s a very strange work environment,” Kevin says. “It is a certain kind of tech company that still has the delusion that they’re a startup, or some sort of underdog.” Decisions often appear to be made quickly, whether the data supports them or not. “None of the ‘higher-ups’ would ever admit that something was not a great idea, even if it was obviously stupid.”
Mosseri’s commitment to focus on “creators” (because “influencer” still seems to be a dirty word) seems justifiable at a time when many are devaluing the platform. But the dilemma is that many users believe brands, businesses, and influencers are already too prevalent and are spoiling their experience on the app. The failure of youth-driven features like Reels and a new focus on shopping – when Instagram already feels like a massive online store – only reinforces the impression that the app is confused about its direction.
So, what now? It may be impossible for Instagram to go back to the basics, as many of its users appear to want. It’s progressed from being a new digital phenomenon to something that has been entirely normalized in our lives. But it’s striking just how much the app has changed over time.
When scrolling through Instagram, it’s obvious that the bulk of the content is recycled from other apps – whether it’s Reels lifted from TikTok or meme pages full of reposted screen grabs of viral tweets. In spite of all the new features, nothing feels especially new.
Frier believes this diminishing relevance boils down to Facebook. After all, as the app’s former VP of Marketing once said, Instagram is no longer a separate entity. “Instagram used to be about finding things that you didn’t even know you wanted to find,” Frier says. “But now, if you use Instagram, the vibe is a lot more like Facebook. What I mean by that is, you’re getting shown things based on what you’ve already viewed. So instead of discovering new things – like people can do much more easily on TikTok – you just get more of the same.”
When Instagram first arrived, its function was clear. Now that’s no longer the case. “Looking at Instagram today, it’s much harder to tell what it’s actually for,” Frier adds. “That might be solving a business problem for Facebook, but Instagram has ended up losing a bit of its identity in the process.”
An earlier version of this article originally appeared on Wired’s UK site. It can be found here.